A day late. I’m blaming the pneumonia, which has made me more likely to fall asleep than stay up writing. Sorry about that.
Mind you, the pneumonia has had the benefit of giving me an excuse to sit on my sofa and watch DVDs. I finally watched Iron Man over the weekend. It’s good, isn’t it? But I think that that’s one of the most remarkable things to happen in the world of comics – or at least in the cultural hinterland between comics and what your average punter might be pleased to call “Mainstream Culture” – over the past ten years has been the rise of the comic book based movie to the status of regular summer blockbuster.
Younger readers* may find this difficult to believe, but before the turn of the twenty first century, films based on comic book characters were almost universally rubbish. There were some notable exceptions of course. Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns are both, in my view, exceptional movies, however badly they might seem dated now. It’s also worth remembering that Blade, the first and best of that franchise came out in 1998, so there was some quality out there before the turn of the millennium.
But not much.
Oh, there had been attempts in the nineties. But while I still have fond memories of Lori Petty in Tank Girl there wasn’t much else to celebrate. As the nineties wore on the quality of the Bat franchise fell sharply, ending in the almost unwatchable turkey that is Batman and Robin. Long standing readers will already know not to even bother mentioning the travesty that was Stallone’s Judge Dredd.
They weren’t even the worst offenders.
But then something happened. I have no idea what. But in the year 2000 we were treated to The X-Men – a film that managed to live up to the expectations of the comics fans and the movie going audience alike. It was a genuinely good movie – one that could be enjoyed by both comics readers and regular movie goers alike. It completely blew me away when I saw it the first time and I have to say watching it recently on DVD it’s still a good evening in.
Other great movies followed. Spider-Man, X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2 – proving that the originals weren’t mere flukes*. There are if course way too many to list, but what I really liked was the way that once the floodgates had opened there were movie based on non-superhero comics too, movies like Ghostworld and Road To Perdition spring immediately to mind – although I guess most people never knew the comicy heritage of these films since in the popular imagination comics are still only about the supes.
Oh yes, it’s been a good ten years for comic book movies. But somehow the massive audience that were reached by the likes of Spider-Man and Batman Begins have yet again failed to translate to increased numbers of people reading comics – in spite of the optimistic hopes of so many of us – and you have to wonder why that is.
I mean, even accepting that the vast majority of people who go to the movies regard the films they see as throwaway entertainment, and that they’re really not that interested in engaging with the characters beyond the hundred and twenty minutes of popcorn fuelled action there are so many people watching these movies that even a tiny minority of them turns out to be an awful lot of people. I mean something like ten million people went to see X-Men Origins: Wolverine on its opening weekend. Even if only one percent of those people bought a copy of Wolverine on the back of that, that would still have lead to a one hundred thousand extra copies sold.
That’s a lot of additional comics.
You know as well as I do that it didn’t happen.
Which when you think about it is one of the more depressing truths of the last ten years. We had a great store front. We had quite literally millions of people getting into our characters and our stories. Somehow we completely failed to turn that massive opportunity into sales or readers. You have to admit, as fails go, that one’s pretty epic. Seriously – you really can’t buy that kind of advertising. It should have been easy.
There are many things that went wrong I guess.
It really doesn’t do to underestimate the depth of the prejudice that your average punter has against comics. Not liking comics seems to be sort of a badge to demonstrate that you’re not thick. People might be consuming a steady diet of reality TV and Soap Operas, never read a book or broadsheet newspaper, never visit a museum or art gallery. But they avoid comics because they’re “kids stuff” and to read them would make them culturally stunted.
Such irrational views are hard to overcome, so perhaps we shouldn’t feel so bad about the fact that we failed to do so.
The problem of course, runs deeper than that.
To the vast majority of the entertainment consuming public, movies are highly accessible. They understand how to interpret them, and they can get hold of them very easily. There may not be a cinema in every small community anymore, but most people are within easy reach of a multiplex. Even if they’re not, these days you can buy a DVD of a recent blockbuster in most supermarkets for a couple of quid. Easy to get hold of, easy to afford and easy to understand. Movies truly do have it made in terms of finding an audience.
Comics do not. There is no way we can pretend they’re cheap. They’re really not, by any measure I can think of. Nor are they easy to get hold of. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but here in the UK there just aren’t a lot of comics shops, and as discussed in many columns over the last ten years the ones that we do have are not always the most inviting places for the uninitiated**. And then they’re not all that accessible either. Reading comics is an acquired skill, and it’s one that many people just don’t think is worth the effort.
And of course, most of the time movies also have the advantage of being self contained narratives. Comics tend not to be, and people seem these days to lack the patience for monthly serials.
Not that comics are always monthly serials.
Perhaps to properly reflect the original comics, any true comic book movie should stop halfway through at a crucial point in the narrative, and not have the next part come out for more than a year. Which oddly would make the most comic book movie of the last decade not Spider-Man or The Dark Knight but Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
Funny how things turn out, innit?
See you the day after tomorrow for the final part of this Anniversary Waltz.
*Although I’m saying nothing about Spider-Man 3 and The Last Stand. There are some limits…
**Which is not to say that there aren’t any nice ones out there. I’d put in a word for my own LCS here in Harrogate, Page 45 in Nottingham and a fair few others. But so many of them are dark, smell funny and are full of slightly smelly teenage boys discussing who would win in a fight between Lt. Worf and D’Argo.***
***For the record, D’Argo would walk it…